Shauna Barbosa Talks ‘Cape Verdean Blues,’ Kendrick Lamar / J. Cole Project & More [Interview]
With Shauna Barbosa’s strong debut book of poetry Cape Verdean Blues out, she talks with Okayplayer about her gift, hip-hop and more.
To be honest, it has been at least a decade since I’ve read a poem that grabbed me by the soul and dragged me through its experiences. Thankfully, Shauna Barbosa is a once-in-a-lifetime type of artist. Engaged in her craft since she was a child, this Roxbury, Massachusetts original has blessed bibliophiles with a collection of writing, reflective of her time growing up and her experiences in love with her debut book, Cape Verdean Blues.
Grounded in her northwestern African roots, Barbosa encounters experiences and captures not only the essence of “Sodade,” but also the nostalgia, love and self-reflection of a life as a creator of words and disciple of hip-hop. With work that has appeared across multiple platforms, Shauna Barbosa has been featured in Lenny Letter, the Awl, the Atlas Review and others. She is also a MFA holder from Bennington College. Speaking of hip-hop, Barbosa earn her rep as solid interviewer herself after sitting down with Kendrick Lamar before the hype train began.
A former employee of the Funky Fresh music store in Boston, a 15-year-old Barbosa learned about the culture with first-hand knowledge from teachers such as Cutmaster C, Funkmaster Flex, and DJ Whoo Kid to name a few. From there she would interview artists like 112 and Jagged Edge, while writing music reviews for her high school paper. The passion only grew from there, and now, with Cape Verdean Blues available everywhere, Ms. Barbosa has gone from self-starter to a valued inspiration for others. Her original pieces have brought people to tears when read live, while for yours truly it was really interesting to get her perspective on her work and where she sees herself headed.
As more and more people discover Cape Verdean Blues and Shauna Barbosa, I was able to sit down with the talented creative to talk about discovering her gift for words, her love and passion for hip-hop and if she’s heard any unreleased songs from that rumored Kendrick Lamar / J. Cole collaborative project.
Okayplayer: When did you first realize that you had a gift with words? Also, share a story of when you used said gift to either get your into or out of some trouble.
Shauna Barbosa: I don’t recall a specific moment because I’ve been writing all my life. I always knew writing was the one thing I owned, what I had control over, I knew it made me feel lighter. In high school is when I discovered I could merge together my passion for writing and music. It was then I knew I’d stay in that line for, say, life? There’d been a rap group in high school, a few underclassmen. I reviewed their album for the newspaper. The review was ruthless. I think I wrote that the music sounded like it was recorded in a basement. I mean, it probably was! We were kids. But could I have been kinder? According to them, yes. Because one afternoon while walking home from school, a few snowballs hit the backs of my legs.
OKP: Your book, Cape Verdean Blues, is out now and available for consumption. What have been your favorite reactions to the book so far? Also, may you talk about any obstacles that you overcame while developing this project?
SB: Wow! There’ve been / are many. From teens to adults to my therapist to old school Cape Verdeans, there’s been so much support. It’s surreal, really. I’m from the hood. There are other things I could have got caught up in. I made this happen. Creating what you want for yourself is extremely difficult work, but possible and tangible. My favorite, favorite, though—when folks tell me that my words or hearing me read give them encouragement and motivation to continue on with their own writing, with their own days. I then get motivated to go on with mine. Cape Verdean Blues has been a ride. This project has taught me to be a better communicator. I require solitude, quite often, too often. Working on this book taught me to comfortably turn my back on isolation. I could not have finished this book without my tribe.
OKP: The praise you received from the likes of Gregory Pardlo, Kathleen Graber and Kendrick Lamar do well to position you as a poetic tour de force, but who are you checking for? Who are you influenced by? Also, may you talk about how your upbringing helped to inspire such prose as “This Won’t Make Sense in English” and “Foreign Summer Remembered in Traffic”…?
SB: Looking forward to forthcoming poetry collections from Camonghne Felix and Julian Randall. I’m checking for everyone with a body. I’ve been moved tremendously by Lucille Clifton, Ariana Reines, Patricia Smith, Dean Young, Anne Sexton, Michael Ondaatje, and Cape Verdean poets Jorge Barbosa and Corsino Fortes.
The five poems in the “This Won’t Make Sense in English” series were added to the manuscript at the very last minute. My mentor said, “Shauna, chill.” And of course, I was like, “Nah.” Since, I’ve been adding to the series for a future project. The different words that start the poems are taken from the first Creole-English dictionary by Manuel Da Luz Gonçalves. That series and “Foreign Summer Remembered in Traffic” are inspired by my relationship with language. Both Kriolu and English. I need my imagination to make sense of words.
Only then can I refer to proper meanings and iterations. When my grandmother and step-mom speak to me in Kriolu, I miss some words. As a kid, I didn’t ask questions for meaning, I resorted to context clues. I learned early on that words mean things, but I didn’t always have a true interpretation on hand.
OKP: Digging into the titles of your poems from Cape Verdean Blues, you have a lot of cultural references that those who might not get it if they weren’t familiar with hip-hop. A personal fave of mine is “Taking Over for the ‘99 and the 2ooo”. How did working at a place like Funky Fresh as a teen imbue a love of hip-hop within you?
SB: Before I started working at Funky Fresh at 14 or 15, I was already deep into mixtape culture: Big Mike, Funkmaster Flex, Whoo Kid, Cutmaster C, DJ Clue, Kay Slay. It was a dream. This was years before the RIAA came in and shut things down (I was around for that, and this was ultimately the reason why the store closed down). My boss worked directly with DJs to get the mixtapes in there and I remember being so intrigued by the behind the scenes work. We sold records, albums, mixtapes in addition to Funky Fresh curated mixtapes. I learned the art of arranging songs to tell a story, which is what I did when I put Cape Verdean Blues together. Because I worked with older folks, I’d be put on to artists who came before the ones of my generation. Working with Rusti Pendleton (owner) at Funky Fresh Records showed me the art of caring for and preserving hip-hop culture.
OKP: Cape Verdean Blues contains about eight years worth of writing work from you. What was the decision making process in what to keep for the book and what to have remain private and personal? Also, share any cutting room floor stories that contributed to the development of Cape Verdean Blues.
SB: Some poems just weren’t ready. When I first started taking poetry courses I was in the middle of an awful break-up. A lot of those pieces felt like diary entries. When you re-read your own work so often, if you take a step back, it’s pretty easy to say to yourself, “I need to find another way to work this out.” That can be in therapy, exercise, spending time with family, or revising a poem. I used to hate editing my poems (I SAID WHAT I SAID) which is why I 86’d a lot of the older ones. I now find revision to be a beauty. When things feel too personal, I just start lying!!! [Laughs] Well, not exactly—but it does give me the opportunity to distance myself from the work by searching for the distant cousins of my truth.
OKP: In a recent chat you did with PAPER, you talked about how you got to know Kendrick Lamar through your interview with J. Cole and eventually he played you some songs they did together. First, are you able to share what the name of those songs were? And second, could you get Top on the phone to finally green light that collaborative album between those two? Also, could you share any other never-before-told hip-hop experiences that might come to mind in relation to befriending Cole and K.Dot?
SB: No and no. It was so long ago I truly have no idea the names of the songs. But here’s a photo of me listening to them!OKP: I wanted to stray away from getting too political, but we are seeing a return to form of sorts by Anglo-Saxons who feel emboldened by this political leader to attack, disrespect and be malignant to people of color. Cape Verdean Blues speaks to human experience in its own way, but what does Shauna think about the times we are living in?
SB: Because of the times we are living in, I find solace in keeping my politics private. This world is fucked up. I don’t see people of color ever being allowed to just be. Which is why I find it extremely important to keep an empathetic, compassionate circle and to do what you can to guard and take care of yourself as well as those around you. The last thing we need right now is to feel alone.
OKP: You are a living connection between the black American experience and being birthed from the African diaspora. For someone just getting acquainted with your work, how would you describe the conversations and experiences you share in Cape Verdean Blues?
SB: Though many of the works are rooted in identity, know that at their base, it is about the basics of our experiences. What comes first? Identity or experience? Does that question make sense? What’s true for me may not be true for you, and that’s what the book is about. Questioning experiences, finding our own way.
OKP: I don’t know a person left on Earth who hasn’t seen Marvel’s Black Panther or Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. If you have, please what were your initial reactions to seeing these films? Could you see yourself being included in the former’s movie soundtrack if Kung-Fu Kenny and TDE produce another one for Black Panther 2?
SB: I have intense emotions about Black Panther so much so that it is hard to discuss. Businesses, Hollywood, whoever—are afraid to make black content out of fear that it will not do well. But come on, have some respect, look at what we did. I say “we” because Black Panther felt like a community effort. Continued support from all sides will keep this ride going. If there is another soundtrack, I’ll see if I can get a skit on there like the kids at the end of “When It Hurts So Bad” on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
OKP: Last question, Ms. Barbosa. You’re a published author, with a must-have collection of personal poems available for consumption, who loves and curates black culture — so what’s next for you in the years to come?
SB: Teaching, more books! But really, I’m open to new ventures that serve others and feels good at the same damn time.
Cape Verdean Blues, written by Shauna Barbosa, is available for purchase on Amazon. Get your copy now by clicking here.